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Dollhouse (spoilers for episodes 1 and 2)

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Back in February, Kam and I watched the first two episodes of Dollhouse. I wrote up my thoughts about them, but for some reason didn't post them. Later, we watched episode 3, which was an improvement but not enough of one to keep us watching, so we gave up on the show.

And now the first (and possibly only) season is over, and I imagine everything I say below is old hat by now. I didn't pay attention to most subsequent discussions of the show, so I don't know whether my issues with it were later addressed. But I was looking through unpublished entries this morning and figured I might as well publish this one.

So the following was all written in late February, except for the last couple paragraphs (which I just now expanded from notes into prose).


Our overall feeling after the first two episodes was that we were dubious, and that if it weren't Whedon we would have given up by now; but because it's Whedon, we'll give it another episode or two.

Big spoilers for the first two episodes follow.

General stuff first:

The first episode just didn't appeal to me much. I find the premise pretty implausible--or rather, I think there are a bunch of holes in it. (Like: don't the millionaire guys who get to spend the perfect weekend with the perfect woman ever end up falling in love and wanting to see her again?) I like Eliza Dushku, but I'm not liking her as much here as I sometimes have in the past. I find Topher annoying--he's so much the generic tech guy that this kind of show always features (except that he seems to have "written by Joss Whedon" stamped on his forehead, or at least on all his dialogue).

The second episode started to grow on me a little. Toward the end, there was finally a moment that I really liked--the exchange between Echo and her handler, Langton, in the woods, reversing their earlier flashback exchange about trust and such. And I'm intrigued by the Alpha plot, and I like Tahmoh Penikett as an actor even though he seems to be playing the standard FBI-agent-who-knows-the-truth-is-out-there. (I really like the Sarah Connor Chronicles rendition of that character template, but I hadn't thought about just how standard a character it is 'til now.)

It looks so far like the Dollhouse is more or less evil, or at least completely amoral (I'm not sure whether the Actives are mostly slaves, volunteers, coerced "volunteers," or some mix, but erasing their core personalities is seriously creepy (as I'm sure the writers intended it to be)). I like the fact that Langton is an ex-cop and seems to have some shreds of human decency, but he's a little morally suspect to me for working for the Dollhouse at all. So Penikett's Agent Ballard appears to be the only good guy on the show (unless you count Echo--I don't think we can count Alpha), and even he seems to be willing to use any means necessary to pursue his obsessive agenda. So I'm having a hard time liking the characters.

Kam commented that the show is kind of a cross between Alias and The Prisoner, to which I would add My Own Worst Enemy (but then again, that show borrowed a lot from Alias as well). But it's definitely not the best parts of those shows.

Okay, so that's general comments.


But I also want to talk about one specific issue that bugged me: the handling of gender issues.

Episode 1 trod on some tricky ground. Set up Echo's persona to be supercompetent; then bring her face to face with the man who raped that persona when the persona was a child. And everything goes to hell. I often love it when supercompetent characters turn out to be vulnerable, but something about the handling of this pushed my buttons. I'm glad that her weakness turned out to be what saved the day in the end, and that she did in the end manage to use her (implanted) skills to turn the tables on Mr. Evil Rapist, but putting female characters into that kind of situation in the first place rubs me the wrong way, I think mostly because it feels like it happens a lot in fiction and media.

And then episode 2 took all of that stuff to a whole new level.

First we see Echo being supercompetent physically. Tough, skillful, lots of endurance, daring. She can climb a cliff (and is confident enough in her own skills to pretend to fall as a joke); she can learn to shoot a bow; she can row a whitewater raft; she seems to be a physical match for this very outdoorsy guy. And she's evidently also very good at sex. (Note that the Actives seem to be primarily, essentially, prostitutes; I'm guessing that sex is part of the package in almost every "engagement." I can't imagine most people who can afford their services wanting them for very many other things--like, in the first episode, why not hire a real hostage negotiator?)

And then the client pulls the reversal on her and turns out to be a psycho and tells her to run.

And she runs--I hate to say this--in a way that's often described as "like a girl." (I'm using that phrase as shorthand; I would never actually say it to describe an actual person running.)

There's nothing wrong with running that way, with your hands up in the air. But when a TV show is trying to show a tough and physically competent woman who's a match for a tough man, they shouldn't show her running like that. This may sound like a tiny nitpick, but my point is that it's an image that has the wrong connotations, and I think it sets us up for what follows:

Which is this horribly sadistic chase/hunt scene. The scary tough strong armed psychopathic man hunts the unarmed terrified woman through the woods. It's a horror-movie scenario. It's something our culture's fiction (both prose and media) shows us all the time, over and over. And it makes me sick.

To his credit, Whedon again upends expectations. The man who looks like he's going to be the savior shows up--and gets shot. There were at least three times after that scene when the bad guy got the upper hand and I was certain that Langton was going to appear and kill him, thereby saving Echo--and then instead she saved herself. I really liked that aspect of it. She gets done, and goes back to the tree, and Langton is still there, still bleeding, still in no shape to do any rescuing. Nicely done.

Except:

Did we really have to watch through the, what, twenty minutes of sadistic horror-movie hunt-through-the-woods in order to get to the cathartic twist resolution?

It made me think of the SH submissions in which the author gives us a lovingly detailed portrayal of a man hurting or torturing a woman, with the ostensible moral that violence against women is wrong. "Look! This is wrong and bad! Wait, you might have missed that, look at it again. Here's a slo-mo closeup. Remember: wrong and bad! Want to see it again, just so you'll know what's wrong and bad?"

It occurs to me that Alias, one my favorite TV shows ever, did a certain amount of this. Sydney regularly got tortured by bad guys. And I wasn't thrilled about that; there was a certain squicky torture-porn feel to some of those scenes.

But in Alias, they had established from the start that Sydney was hands-down the toughest and most competent person in the room at any given moment. We knew that she could take the pain and the pressure, and that she would come up with some inventive way of using the materials at hand to extricate herself from the situation. Sure, that probably led them to linger a little more on the torture scenes than they might otherwise have done, but--I think the difference for me was that I never (or almost never) felt like they were portraying Sydney as a helpless victim.

Whereas in Dollhouse, I have a feeling that Echo is going to be a helpless victim a lot. Sure, she'll end up turning the tables on the bad guys each time. But if we're going to have to watch her be a helpless victim for ten or twenty minutes first, I have less than zero interest in sticking with the show.


In a recent TV Guide video interview, Whedon is asked if he would consider himself a feminist. He says:

"I would consider myself absolutely a feminist. And I think a lot of people who watch Dollhouse are gonna be challenged by that, because it's a very touchy show, it's gonna deal with some ugly issues."

I sometimes get the impression that Whedon considers himself to be living in a world of post-feminist art, where fiction doesn't regularly indulge in problematic portrayals of women and so he can do so with the understanding that we're all friends here, all enlightened, that we all recognize that he doesn't mean anything bad by what he's doing.

And, sure, yeah, if we lived in a society where women and men were truly and universally considered equals, and where women were not routinely portrayed in fiction as prostitutes, rape victims, and terrified victims of sadistic violent men, then I would have been much more likely to think "Huh, this is interesting, Whedon is playing with some traditional and now-outmoded tropes about women in fiction." But because of the social milieu in which we're embedded, it's hard for me to ignore all those other portrayals, which makes it hard for me to see this as not buying into the problem that it purports to be addressing.


PS added a little later: for a very different take, from someone who's watched the whole first season, see Why Dollhouse Really Is Joss Whedon's Greatest Work, by Charlie Jane Anders. I really like Charlie's description and discussion of it (which are, of course, full of big spoilers); if I could see in the show what she sees in it, I would like it too.

4 Comments

I don't have time for a real reply, but I do have one comment, in response to, "I would have been much more likely to think 'Huh, this is interesting, Whedon is playing with some traditional and now-outmoded tropes about women in fiction'": there's not much value in commenting on tropes that are outmoded. For both artistic merit and social power, a work that plays with unpleasant tropes that still have currency is more effective (and often more troubling) than one that gingerly exhumes the foibles of the past.


The contrast with Sydney in Alias is a good one. I remember being shocked at seeing her tortured in the pilot episode, but she was never a terrified victim. When her interrogator got out the pliers to start working on her teeth, all she said was, "Start at the back."


Jere7my: As a general point, I'll go along with that. And I agree that I kinda muddied my point there; I didn't mean to say that Whedon should only mess with old outmoded tropes. What I meant was that I get the feeling that he considers these tropes to be so obviously silly/eyeroll-inducing to the average audience member that he feels that portraying them in detail and at length isn't problematic. (There are many other possible interpretations of why he does it; I'm just saying that that's the gut feeling I get when hear him talk about being a feminist in conjunction with showing this kind of thing.)

And I would add that when trying to mess with current unpleasant tropes, it's easy to submerge oneself so far that there's a risk of supporting the thing one's trying to subvert, and/or turning off one's target audience before they get to the intended point.

If one's goal is Art regardless of social consequences, then one can take the stance that it doesn't matter what political stance your work supports. But if one wants to be seen as an ally—and I gather that Whedon does, given how much he talks about the importance of writing strong female characters, and given how much credit he gets for doing so—then I think it behooves one to be careful about crossing that line. (But as noted below, I obviously can't speak for everyone on whether he crossed the line; he did for me, but it may just be me.)

Interestingly, I take the opposite stance in some specific other contexts. For example, I gather that a fair number of lesbians walked out of Chasing Amy halfway through, because it seemed obvious to them that this was yet another instance of a movie about a lesbian finally meeting the right guy and settling down to be straight. That attitude about the movie annoyed me, because (a) it seemed clear to me that the character in question was bi, and (b) the people who walked out may never have found out that the ending completely undermines that traditional narrative.

But these days, I have a little more sympathy for the people who walked out. When you see the same storyline played out over and over, everywhere you look, I think you can be forgiven for not having the patience to sit through what looks like yet another rendition of it for long enough to find out whether it's going to subvert things. I wasn't really aware at the time, I think, of just how common that lesbian-sees-error-of-ways storyline is/was.

I think part of my becoming more sympathetic about this has to do with reading submissions. Many writers try to subvert common tropes by giving us the trope over and over again for 5000 words and then adding a 100-word twist ending to subvert it. (Or, relatedly, they show an awful character being awful at great length and in enormous detail, and then at the end that character gets their comeuppance so good triumphs after all.) And if I'm sick of seeing that trope, then I really don't want to have to wade through another extensive rendition of it just to get to the twist.

It's certainly possible that I've become over-sensitized to the woman-as-helpless-victim-in-fiction thing (and assorted other semi-related handling of women in fiction); I'm definitely more bothered by it now than I was a couple years ago. I think I started noticing this stuff more after I first heard about Women in Refrigerators Syndrome.

But at this point, various tropes in that general constellation make me feel sick. I don't enjoy watching them and I don't enjoy reading them, no matter how subversive the twist ending is going to be. Clearly some people aren't bothered; see Charlie's io9 article (and others she's written in the past praising the show). But it bothers me a lot.


Ted: Yeah, I was impressed by that scene too. I think there may have been a couple of times (out of the fairly frequent torture scenes in Alias) when they did put kind of a helpless-victim spin on things, and I tended to be put off by those instances. But I think most of the time they did a good job (at least for my tastes) in keeping it palatable.


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